Water And Oceanography

The Discovery of Lake Tanganyika

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The Discovery of Lake Tanganyika

The Stuff of Legend

Struggling through dense, uncharted jungle; fording chest-deep rivers and slogging through malaria-infested swamps It may sound like something out of an Indiana Jones movie, but it is the true story of the discovery Lake Tanganyika in 1858 by the British explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) and fellow adventurer John Hanning Speke (1827-1864).

Burton the Iconoclast

Sir Richard Francis Burton was a prolific writer and gifted linguist who spoke more than 25 languages. He authored dozens of books and articles describing his explorations in Asia, Africa, and South America. After being expelled from Trinity College, Oxford, Burton enlisted in the army and served in India, where he became familiar with the culture and quickly became fluent in several languages, including Hindustani, Persian and Arabic. Upon leaving the army, he convincingly disguised himself as a Moslem and succeeded in traveling as a pilgrim to Medina and Mecca. Burton's insatiable curiosity and appetite for adventure, coupled with a hearty disdain for convention, resulted in a reputation bordering on legendary.

Speke the Conformist

John Hanning Speke's personality was the opposite of Burton's. The arrogant son of a squire, Speke was conventional and prudish, an exemplar of the prevailing Victorian attitude. He learned no languages apart from a minimal amount of Hindustani, and regarded Burton's embracing of "savage" cultures with contempt. An avid big-game hunter, he had accompanied Burton on an earlier, ill-fated expedition to Somalia, where they were attacked by tribesmen. Captured and stabbed repeatedly by spears, Speke barely escaped with his life. After his recovery, Speke served in the Crimean War, and then signed on to accompany Burton on his expedition to East Africa. Not surprisingly, the two men did not get along and ultimately became enemies.

The East African Expedition Departs

The Royal Geographic Society funded the expedition to East Africa with the objective of locating the "inland sea," as well as assessing possible products for export and studying the tribal people. The unofficial goal was to discover the source of the Nile River.

In June, 1857, the expedition set off from Zanzibar. They hired porters and assembled a vast quantity of supplies, in addition to abundant cloth, wire and beads for trading. Warned to keep away from the Masai Plains as too dangerous, the explorers chose a longer, southern route. They marched in a noisy procession headed by a drummer, followed by porters, armed guards, women, children, personal slaves, donkeys and cattle. A key member of the party was their invaluable African guide, Sidi Mubarak, known as Bombay, who acted as overseer to the porters, bartered with villagers for food, and proved to be the most reliable of the company. Burton called him "a gem."

Illness and Other Afflictions

The journey was rife with difficulties: they were plagued by stinging ants, mosquitoes, and tsetse flies, and attacked by a swarm of killer bees; the riding donkeys grew sick and died; the porters routinely refused to work and many deserted, sometimes taking with them supplies and equipment. Their route led them through miles of swampy lowlands, where they sank knee-deep in slimy black mud. Valuable supplies, weapons and surveying instruments were lost or damaged while fording swiftly flowing rivers.

Burton and Speke repeatedly fell gravely ill over the course of the journey, contracting recurring malarial fever and infections. They suffered from delirium, paralysis, ague, and fainting fits. Often too weak to walk, they had to be carried by litter or hammock for a good part of the trek. At one point, Speke was rendered nearly blind as the result of an eye inflammation, and was unable to see the lake when they finally reached it. His vision subsequently recovered.

A Tragic Path

They had a brief respite in the small highland village of Dut'humi, where they were welcomed and offered accommodation. In return for the hospitality, Burton rescued five villagers who had been taken as slaves in a raid by a neighboring tribe.

Leaving the swamps behind them, the caravan climbed up into the Useghara Mountains, where they endured blazing hot days, fierce winds, and unpleasantly cold nights. They followed a slavers' path, along which they witnessed the picked-clean bones and decaying corpses of porters and captives who had succumbed to starvation and disease.

A Welcome Break and Important Information

In November, they reached the Arab settlement of Kazeh, where they remained for a month. Burton befriended Snay bin Amir, who admired the Englishman for his knowledge of the Arabic language and customs. Confirming Burton's suspicion that there was more than one lake, Snay related that he himself had been to Lake Tanganyika, located due west of Kazeh. He told them that an even larger lake lay to the north, but advised them against going there directly, as the route was too dangerous.

Burton and Speke disagreed about which of the lakes was the likely source of the Nile. Burton thought it was the western lake, while Speke, correctly as it turned out, voted for the northern one.

A Joyful Sight

Not long before they reached their destination, Burton fell so desperately ill that he believed he would die. His limbs were completely paralyzed, and he was racked with pain. Within ten days, the symptoms lessened and he was able to stay astride a donkey and continue forward, but it would be nearly a year before he was able to walk normally again.

They reached the settlement of Ujiji on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in February, 1858, completing a journey of 950 miles. The party was filled with awe and joy at the sight of the shining water. Speke eventually continued on to find the northern lake, the true source of the Nile, which he named Lake Victoria.


Lovell, Mary S. (1998). A Rage to Live: A Biography of Richard & Isabel Burton. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-04672-9





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From Around the Web

  • InfoBoxCallToAction ActionArrowhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sir_Richard_Francis_Burton
  • InfoBoxCallToAction ActionArrowhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Hanning_Speke
  • InfoBoxCallToAction ActionArrowhttp://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/speke_john_hanning.shtml
  • InfoBoxCallToAction ActionArrowhttp://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/burton_sir_richard_francis.shtml